The conversation about the vital importance of supplying books by, for, and about individuals from diverse backgrounds continued during a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators panel on February 10. The event featured authors, illustrators, and industry professionals, and drew a packed house of attendees. The speakers were: author Matt de la Peña; T.S. Ferguson, editor at Harlequin Teen; Stacy Whitman, editor at Tu Books; author-illustrator Eric Velasquez; and author and psychotherapist Rebecca Alexander. The discussion was moderated by Bridget Casey, co-regional advisor for SCBWI Metro NY.

The panelists kicked off the discussion by offering their own definitions of what diversity means within the context of writing, reading, and publishing children’s literature. For Velasquez, diversity is “the ability to see characters who do not look like yourself but to identity with them.” He added that, growing up, his heroes didn’t look like him. And, in fact, “heroes still look the same” today. That is: predominantly white. For Velasquez, diversity need not be about division, but rather “inclusion” of different faces and voices.

For Alexander, diversity goes far beyond appearances, to speak to the whole of the human experience. In her memoir, Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Sense Lost and Found (Gotham Books), she writes about living with a genetic condition that has caused her to slowly lose her hearing and sight to the point of being nearly deaf and blind. Alexander grew up in Oakland, Calif., and was accustomed to living among different cultures; she shared that it “wasn’t until I had to face my own sense of adversity that I began to embrace diversity in a new way.”

For Whitman, who had headlined a workshop about writing for diverse audiences at the SCBWI’s winter conference the previous weekend, the topic of diversity was especially fresh in her mind. At that event, she discussed an 11-point “axis of diversity,” which she discovered through the online education project “Teaching Tolerance” These points of access to understanding diversity are: “race, ethnicity, language, religion, gender identification, immigration, sexual orientation, class, ability, age, and place.” One individual at the event suggested that “adoption” might be added to the potentially ever-expanding list.

De la Peña sees real diversity as lying beyond the use of the “marked character,” or a protagonist who is focused upon because of his or her ethnicity or other characteristic, as though the character is fulfilling a quota, rather than being an organic component of the story for other reasons.

Casey referenced the work of Rudine Sims Bishop, whose 1990 essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” presented an analogy about works of literature serving as either mirrors reflecting a reader’s own life experiences or as windows into experiences a reader has never had. The longevity of Bishop’s analogy speaks to its prudence, yet, Casey wondered, why hasn’t there been more progress in the last 25 years? Why are we just having this conversation in earnest now about the need for diverse books?

Whitman noted how the notion persists that books featuring characters of a certain ethnicity are intended for a particular audience, rather than for everyone. When promoting Lee and Low books to bookstores, Whitman has often encountered the response that because a bookstore may serve an almost exclusively white community, “why would we need your books?” Her response: “That’s why.” Kids who live in homogenous areas need to read books about people unlike them, she said.

De la Peña shared that, as he developed into a writer, he wanted to write for and about the Mexican-American kids he grew up with, but that doesn’t mean that only those kids should read his books. “It’s amazing to see yourself in a book, but how great to see a kid from an upper-middle-class background reading a book about a kid who looks like you.” He added that it will be clear that real progress will have been made when we see stories with diverse characters that “have nothing to do with diversity.”

In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, which Ferguson edited, the two protagonists – a black student and a white student at a recently integrated high school in 1959 Virginia – learn that their similarities can eclipse their differences: “Linda thinks all these black students integrating into her school are so different,” but that isn’t the case. Ferguson believes that the two central characters can serve as a touchstone for readers who may arrive at a similarly powerful realization: though a character may look nothing like them, he or she may end up mirroring the reader’s feelings and experiences regardless.

Alexander has been disappointed to discover that bookstores often place her memoir in the “disabilities and special needs area,” with the idea being that only disabled readers might have an interest. The reality is, she has found that her readership consists of people who have connected to her story having “experienced any kind of adversity.”

A Shared Responsibility

The panelists agreed that consumers have a remarkable amount of power in an industry that can’t always afford to take chances on publishing books that may not sell. Whitman mentioned the outcry that occurred via social media over the “whitewashing” of YA covers in recent years, with notable examples being Bloomsbury’s Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. When readers saw that the representations of the characters in the cover art looked nothing like the characters in the books, consumers “demanded that the covers reflect the characters’ ethnicities.” She added that this erroneous notion that “black books’ don’t sell” still lingers.

Finding models who truly do represent what the characters look like can be a big challenge, though, and stock art is typically a dead-end. It’s something Whitman has experienced first-hand with projects like Joseph Bruchac’s Killer of Enemies, which has an Apache protagonist, and M.K. Hutchins’s Drift, which features a Mayan character. For Killer of Enemies, Whitman reached out to a Native American friend who was able to connect her with a girl who was eager to be pictured on the book’s cover. For Drift, they weren’t able to find a model who could accurately reflect the character, so they ended up not using a photographic image. Like Whitman, Ferguson is also adamant that the covers of the books he oversees reflect a character’s true appearance: “This is what she looks like. The model better look like her,” he tells designers.

De la Peña also expressed exasperation at cover art that avoids showing a non-white character’s face by having the figure photographed from the back or side, such as the original cover for Thanhhà Lại’s National Book Award-winning Inside Out and Back Again (Harper).

From cover art to bookstore shelves, consumers can do more to dictate the kinds of books that bookstores carry, the panelists agreed. Among their suggestions for readers who are seeking to support diverse authors and their books: “Come into a bookstore with a list of diverse books,” said Whitman, “and be committed to buying them.”

De la Peña added: “Don’t just lean on usual suspects,” urging readers to not always look for established writers but instead support debut authors from diverse backgrounds.

The panelists recognized that, as content creators, they also have a responsibility: to accurately and authentically represent diverse characters in the books they write or edit. Whitman believes that an author needs to be aware of how his or her own generalizations and misconceptions can sneak their way into a book and end up alienating a reader.

Like Whitman, Ferguson has worked closely with authors writing about characters from outside their own race to ensure that their narratives are authentic. He believes that it’s critical for those authors to consult cultural experts while being “open to criticism and open to making changes.”

Velasquez, who currently teaches book illustration, often speaks to his students about avoiding reinforcing stereotypes in their work. During one such conversation, he had a revelation. In class, he was running down a list of common stereotypes and mentioned how “Marilyn Monroe gave birth to the dumb blonde stereotype,” when a student stopped him and asked what he meant. Apparently this particular student had never heard a “dumb blonde” joke. The fact that this stereotype had been largely erased is due, he believes to persistent images of capable, intelligent blonde women in books and the media, and suggests that maybe any stereotype can be stamped out if there is a concerted effort to do so.

There are stereotypes about authors as well. De la Peña gets the feeling that sometimes he has been labeled as “the Mexican author”, which he finds ironic: himself half Mexican, he writes entirely about “kids who feel they aren’t Mexican enough.” On the flip-side, de la Peña said: “I think it’s dangerous to completely duck stereotypes. You start to tell a politically correct version of a story.”

De la Peña said he doesn’t necessarily set out to prove or disprove expectations about Mexican-American individuals, but more pointedly to encourage readers to see their own lives in new ways.“There are moments of grace and dignity that take place on the wrong side of the tracks,” he said. For de la Peña and the other content creators on the panel, writing diverse characters isn’t just the right thing to do – it serves as an accurate reflection of both their audience and the world that they inhabit.